Tom Vanderbilt (Slate):
Spend enough time riding the New York City subway—or any big-city metro—and you'll find yourself on the tenure-track to an honorary degree in transit psychology. The subway—which keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting—is a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior. As the sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio once noted, "The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation."
Or situations. The subway presents any number of discrete, and repeatable, moments of interaction, opportunities to test how "situational factors" affect outcomes...
By 1971, Erving Goffman, in his book Relations in Public, was noting that a ritual of what he called "civil inattention" had taken hold on the subway as in other spheres of city life: We acknowledge another person's presence, but not enough to make them "a target of special curiosity or design." Or, as the authors of the essay "Subway Behavior," (in the book People and Places: Sociology of the Familiar) put it, "subway behavior is regulated by certain societal rules and regulations that serve to protect personal rights and to sustain proper social distance between unacquainted people who are temporarily placed together in unfocused and focused interaction."
What much subway psychology seeks to understand, however, is what holds these rules in place, and what happens when they are violated. In one of the most well-known studies, social psychologist Stanley Milgram had students spontaneously ask subway riders to give up their seats. As Thomas Blass recounts in The Man Who Shocked the World, this experiment arose from the seeming erosion of a subway norm. As Milgram's mother-in-law had posed it to him: "Why don't young people get up anymore in a bus or a subway train to give their seat to a gray-haired elderly woman?"
Milgram wanted to know: What if you simply asked them to? And so students in his experimental social psychology class took to the underground to ask for seats, under a number of conditions (either with no justification, or offering a rationale like "I can't read my book standing up"). People were surprisingly compliant—a total of 68 percent either got up or moved over in the "no justification" condition. The more justification that was offered, however, the less likely people were to stand up. Curiously, Blass notes, the most striking thing for many of the participants was just how difficult it was to ask for the seat ("I actually felt as if I were going to perish," recalled Milgram). It's not hard to imagine why; asking for help on a subway exposes one to both the risk of a certain stigma—and to the possibility of rejection.